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Louisiana Illuminator

Louisiana ag commissioner warns of continued wildfire risk: ‘It is literally a tinderbox.’

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2023-08-31 04:00:39

Louisiana ag commissioner warns of continued wildfire risk: ‘It is literally a tinderbox.'

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
August 31, 2023

The Louisiana official who leads the state's wildfire fighting efforts says he will ask the legislature for more resources next year, including additional personnel and a tanker plane that can drop water on blazes. His pending request comes as emergency crews attempt to contain major fires in southwest Louisiana under persisting drought conditions.

In the meantime, Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain and Gov. John Bel Edwards urged citizens Wednesday to pay heed to the statewide burn ban and discouraged outdoor barbecues during the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

Both officials spent Tuesday in DeRidder, the Beauregard Parish seat just miles away from the state's largest wildfire. The Tiger Island fire, which consumed more than 30,000 acres of woodlands, is largely contained, but firefighters were still knocking down hotspots to keep fires from reigniting. The Ida fire, a separate blaze southeast of Leesville in Vernon Parish, was a bigger threat Tuesday but over a much smaller, easier to manage area, Strain said.  

Even with two consecutive days of rainfall in parts of Louisiana, the governor and agriculture commissioner stressed that the danger of additional wildfires is not over — and won't be anytime soon. Strain said a good 3 to 4 inches is needed in order to soak the ground to the point where the fire risk is negated. Without it, conditions are prime for another large fire to erupt.  

“It is literally a tinderbox,” Strain said.

Trees knocked down during hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Ida in 2021 are fueling the fires, officials said. Asked whether there are any mitigation efforts available to reduce the fire risk, Strain said controlled prescribed burns to clear forest floors are the typical method. But because of the prolonged dry conditions in Louisiana, prescribed burns are prohibited indefinitely statewide.  

After the hurricanes, the federal government offered timber farmers reimbursement to clean up fallen trees and replant new ones at a rate of $400 to $500 per acre, Strain said. But because farmers didn't have the money to spend up front, few participated in the program.     

Fires on the scale of those currently impacting Louisiana might not occur every year, Strain said, but he anticipates annual emergencies will quickly deplete his department's manpower as well as fire personnel and equipment at local levels. The agriculture department has deployed all 155 of its firefighters for the Tiger Island fire.

There are a total of 1,200 people currently on the ground in response to wildfires, Strain said. The bulk of them are local volunteer firefighters and first-responders from outside Louisiana who are part of a U.S. Forestry Service regional task force. National Guard units from Louisiana and neighboring states have provided the helicopters and airplanes that have comprised the aerial components used to bring fires under control.

Strain said he will ask the legislature next year to provide money so his department can purchase air tankers, bulldozers, brush trucks and additional equipment. 

“We need to augment what we have and increase personnel,” he said. “Because I would like to tell you that next year we won't face this, but I'm telling you next year we need to be prepared for it.”

The governor made it clear that while the statewide burn ban does not apply to barbecues, he would prefer that residents not use their grills over the holiday weekend, which also marks the start of college football and dove hunting seasons.   

“We do know that, historically, a lot of fires start that way, and we just can't have more fires than absolutely necessary,” Edwards said.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has banned all forms of open flame cooking for Saturday's football against Northwestern State, the Acadiana Advocate reported. Generators will still be allowed in tailgating areas as long as they are elevated off the ground.

Throughout the state, fires have destroyed between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of forestland, according to state officials.

Wildfires were reported Wednesday in St. Landry and Terrebonne parishes.

The St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office reported a grass fire outside of Eunice grew out of control and spread to nearby structures.

A marsh fire near Schriever caused smoke to fill large portions of northern Terrebonne Parish, according to the The Courier. A local fire official said several canals cut through the area that prevent them from accessing it, but they also prevent the fire from spreading. No buildings faced any risk.

Two people have died in separate debris fires in St. Tammany and Washington parishes this month. The number of structures loss to fire in Louisiana remains relatively low, with just over 20 so far.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2024-02-22 05:00:54

Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
February 22, 2024

Companies that receive major breaks on their local property taxes to invest in large industrial projects in Louisiana will no longer have to set hiring goals to get the incentive, plus they won't need approval from local taxing authorities if the governor is in favor of their proposal.   

Gov. Jeff Landry signed an executive order Wednesday that upends the standards and approval process that's been place for the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) since 2016. The signing took place during the governor's appearance at a Louisiana Association of Business and Industry luncheon, according to the Baton Rouge Business Report

“This program is about capital investment. It is not about job creation,” Landry said.

Since 1998, Louisiana has awarded more than $20 billion in local tax breaks to industry through its Industrial Tax Exemption Program, according to an Ohio River Valley Institute analysis. 

Flow from the ITEP spigot slowed significantly in 2016 then-Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order that required local approval of industrial tax exemptions. He also reduced the tax break available from 100% of property taxes to 80% and inserted a job-creation requirement for companies. Landry's order keeps the tax reduction at the same level.

The executive order he signed Wednesday also condenses the process for companies to receive local approval on their tax exemptions. Previously, each local body that collects property taxes had to approve tax breaks independently with a separate public hearing. For example, a parish school board could approve the tax exemption, but a parish council or sheriff could reject it. The business would then receive a partial tax break.  

Landry's new arrangement calls for a single parish industrial board, which would include representatives from the taxing agencies, to consider ITEP applications. Its vote would apply to all local agencies that receive property taxes, meaning companies would get approval a total tax break or none.

The executive order also upends the sequence of approval to award industrial tax exemptions, placing ultimate power in the governor's hands. Local approval has been necessary for an ITEP request to advance for consideration to the state Board of Commerce and Industry, a 24-member panel of appointees from business groups and the governor. 

Now, under Landry's order, companies will first submit their applications to the Board of Commerce and Industry. If their request is approved, the state panel will then notify a parish industrial board that it must hold a public hearing on the application within 45 days.

However, the order says little about what weight the local recommendation has in the ITEP approval process or how it factors into the governor's decision.

“Input from the Local ITEP Committee is important for consideration of an industrial tax exemption; however, it should not unduly delay the ITEP application process,” the order reads.

In an email, the Illuminator asked Landry spokesperson Kate Kelly about the governor's ability to override a local ITEP vote.

“The governor is the final say,” Kelly said.

Together Louisiana, a coalition of church and civic groups, has been highly critical of the state's generous ITEP giveaways. In a statement Wednesday, the group questioned whether Landry's order turned the incentive program into “a gift.”

“If a corporation gets a tax exemption, not to bring in a new plant or create jobs, but just as a public subsidy for its routine capital investments — investments, that is, that would have happened anyway — the result is not economic development. It's the opposite,” the Together Louisiana statement said. 

“In that scenario, local communities don't get new economic activity, but they still lose the millions in tax revenue from their schools, roads and police,” the statement continued. “They lose jobs — the teachers, construction workers, sheriff's deputies and others who would have provided the services that went unfunded. And their property taxes start going up, to fill the holes in the tax base left by each new round of gratuitous giveaway.”

Without any job requirements, companies can now apply for tax exemptions for most any large-scale investment in Louisiana. Landry's order does specify that maintenance expenses, environmental compliance upgrades and replacement parts that are not part of an extensive restoration do not qualify for ITEP awards.

The order goes into effect for all ITEP applications moving forward, effective Feb. 21, but does not apply retroactively to applications or exemptions.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

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lailluminator.com – Piper Hutchinson – 2024-02-21 16:51:56

Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

by Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

Three Louisiana criminal justice reform advocates have asked a state court to prevent the Legislature from discussing several proposals until more public testimony is heard on the bills. 

Their petition was filed Wednesday in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge by Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Experienced, Ronald Marshall, chief policy analyst with Voice of the Experienced, and Erica Navalance, a staff attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative. Read the full petition below. 

They contend House Administration of Criminal Justice Chair Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, has irregularly limited public input over two days of hearings during a special session on crime policy. The agenda for the session features a string of bills, with Gov. Jeff Landry's support, that call for harsher consequences for criminals.   

The committee enacted a rule to limit each public commenter to three minutes and cut off public debate after proponents and opponents of a bill each testified for one hour. The three-minute rule is a common practice at the Capitol, but overall time limits are seldom used. 

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Committee members said they supported these rules to get through testimony more quickly. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the committee had a full schedule of bills that attracted a large number of public comments. The special session doesn't have to end until March 5, but leaders have suspended the rules several times in order to expedite hearings on bills rather than letting them lay over for a day between hearings. 

House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Matthew Willard of New Orleans and other Democrats have criticized Republicans for fast-tracking legislation that would almost totally reshape Louisiana's criminal justice system, giving the public limited opportunity for input. 

The court petition seeks to prevent the full House of Representatives from discussing the bill until the House Criminal Justice Committee holds another hearing to allow more public comment. The complainants say they traveled to Baton Rouge to testify, but the committee's time limits prevented them from speaking. 

House Speaker Phillip Devillier, R-Eunice, defended the committee, arguing two hours of discussion per bill is reasonable, and that the Legislature is allowed to suspend the rules to advance bills. 

The complainants want to pause debate on four bills: 

House Bill 4, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carenco, which limits post-conviction relief opportunities. House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, which expands the methods by which Louisiana executes people and shields records related to executions from public viewHouse Bill 9, by Villio, which eliminates parole in almost all circumstances House Bill 10, by Villio, which limits good time credits and credit for time served

 

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

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lailluminator.com – Jennifer Shutt – 2024-02-21 16:26:30

Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

by Jennifer Shutt, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

President Joe Biden expanded his push to eliminate student loan debt Wednesday, saying during a speech the initiative is part of a campaign promise to address the “broken” system.

“While a college degree is still a ticket to a better life, that ticket is too expensive,” Biden said. “And too many Americans are still saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for a college degree.”

Biden, who made his remarks while on a trip to California that also included fundraising for his 2024 campaign, argued that canceling student loan debt not only helps those who receive the benefit directly, but those in their communities.

“When people's student debt is relieved, they buy homes, they start businesses, they contribute, they engage in the community in ways they weren't able to before and it actually grows the economy,” Biden said.

The latest round of student debt forgiveness includes nearly 153,000 borrowers and a total of $1.2 billion in debt, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

Those receiving loan forgiveness are enrolled in the Saving on a Valuable Education or SAVE repayment plan, have been paying back their loans for at least 10 years and originally took out less than $12,000 in loans.

This week's actions bring total student loan cancellation by the Biden administration to $138 billion for nearly 3.9 million people, according to the fact sheet.

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Repayments tied to income, family size

The so-called SAVE Plan allows borrowers to set their student loan repayments based on their income and family size, not the amount of student loan debt they hold.

“The SAVE plan ensures that if borrowers are making their monthly payments, their balances cannot grow because of unpaid interest,” according to the White House's fact sheet. “And, starting in July, undergraduate loan payments will be cut in half, capping a borrower's loan payment at 5% of their discretionary income.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a call with reporters Tuesday there are about 7.5 million people enrolled in the SAVE Plan and that 4.3 million don't have a monthly payment.

“Many SAVE forgiveness recipients come from lower- and middle-income backgrounds,” Cardona said. “Many took out loans to attend community colleges. Some were at high risk for delinquency and default. That's why the actions we're announcing today do matter.”

Cardona said those eligible for this round of student debt cancellation would receive an email from Biden telling them about the move.

New FAFSA rollout criticized

Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said in a written statement the latest round of student loan forgiveness is misguided.

“The Biden Department of Education has been unable to fulfill their basic responsibilities mandated by Congress and essential to families, like implementing FAFSA,” Cassidy said, referring to the application college students fill out to access student aid, including grants, scholarships and loans.

The Biden administration's efforts to revamp the form have been marred by delays and errors. 

“Instead, they have spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing their student loan schemes to shift someone else's debt onto taxpayers that chose not to go to college or already paid off their loans,” Cassidy added. “This is unfair, manipulative and a cynical attempt to buy votes.”

Cassidy is the ranking member on the U.S. Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, often referred to as the HELP Committee.

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Supreme Court decision

Biden, speaking at the Julian Dixon Library in Culver City, California, criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for blocking his original student loan forgiveness plan. 

“Early in my term, I announced a major plan to provide millions of working families with debt relief for their college student debt,” Biden said. “But my MAGA Republican friends in the Congress, elected officials and special interests stepped in and sued us. And the Supreme Court blocked it. But that didn't stop me.”

Biden said the justices' opinion in that case led him to “pursue alternative paths” for student debt relief, which includes the announcement he made Wednesday.

Canceling some student loan debt, Biden said, is about giving people a chance.

“That's all we're doing … giving people a chance, a fighting chance to make it, because no one who is willing to work hard in America should be denied the opportunity to have that chance.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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